Alzheimer's disease – soon just a memory?
21 October 2013
Research on Alzheimer's disease quickly breaks new ground. At the present time researchers at Uppsala are testing a treatment that will slow the progression of the disease at an early stage. “Hopefully it will be launched on the market within five years,” says Professor Lars Lannfelt.
Alzheimer's, our most common form of dementia, hits harder as life expectancy increases. Today, 36 million people are affected, of whom 150,000 are Swedes. The disease costs Sweden SEK 40 billion per annum and that’s not counting the human suffering. The aging medicines that are available have at best a limited effect, but research is moving forward rapidly and now a research team from Uppsala is on the heels of a treatment.
“Heredity is next to old age, the primary risk factor for developing Alzheimer's disease. By studying two Nordic families, we have managed to identify the importance of amyloid-beta protofibrils in the early stages of the disease. We have now developed a medicine that we hope will neutralise these protein forms and in doing so stop the disease,” says Lars Lannfelt, professor of geriatric medicine at Uppsala University.
For a long time the disease was barely recognised, but as the neurodegenerative diseases were generally given greater weight awareness of Alzheimer’s disease increased. Great progress has been made through extensive research conducted mainly in the USA and Japan, but also in Sweden and Uppsala. A proprietary method for early diagnosis of diseases has laid the foundation for the new medicines, which after successful trials on mice are currently being tested on humans.
“In the autumn of 2010, we initiated a study of 80 American patients. The dosage of one injection per month for four months gave no side effects and in the spring of 2013 we progressed with an effect measurement on 800 patients. Later this year we will also start a European study and the results observed on mice gives us every reason for optimism,” says Martin Ingelsson, researcher at Uppsala University.
The aim of the research team is to create a slowing treatment with a stabilizing effect on the entire global patient population, but already a success on half the cases was, according to Lars Lannfelt, considered to be a medical revolution. A medicine designed for prevention in preliminary stages of the diseases requires mass screening, yet researchers do not consider this an insurmountable problem.
“If the treatment is successful, this will create both an economic incentive to fund testing and possible treatment, and give affected relatives and other high-risk groups every reason to actively be screened. At the same time this demands the continued development of different diagnostic methods. This is why we collaborate with the Uppsala Berzelii Centre with the aim to improve PET technology with which we measure the concentration of beta-amyloid in the brain,” says Lars Lannfelt.
When does the team believe this new medicine can be launched on the market? In a newspaper article from 2011, Lars Lannfelt expressed a hope of an approved product in the autumn of 2016. Two years later, the process has taken a major step forward, but he still sees the finishing line about five years in the future, i.e. 2018.
“Unfortunately, it’s easy to become optimistic in terms of time. We have researched Alzheimer's disease for more than 20 years, and once I thought we would be able to present a treatment in the early 2000's. Today, everything points in the right direction and we are confident, but the fact is that the enormous, logistical apparatus we are in will continue to house delays,” added Lars Lannfelt.
In parallel with the development of a treatment for Alzheimer's disease, the research team reviews the possibilities of extending its work to include similar neurodegenerative diseases. Among other things, it has been discussed whether the antibodies developed can have an effect on Down syndrome and traumatic brain injuries. Early development is also underway to develop similar treatments for Parkinson's disease and Lewy body dementia in which the protein alpha-synuclein is stored in the brain to name but a few.
“We have already started treatment for alpha-synuclein in cells and on mice we have seen positive results, but it will take probably up to five years before we can evaluate the treatment on patients,” says Martin Ingelsson.
Neurodegenerative diseases are diseases that slowly wither the nerve system, for example, dementia, Parkinson's disease and ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis).
Alzheimer's disease is the most common form of dementia. In general the disease is diagnosed in people over 65, even if it can occur much earlier.
PET technology is a medical imaging technology to produce three-dimensional images of, for example, metabolism in the brain and how different substances, for example, signal substances move in the body.